Adventures in underland

In the fresh instalment of Alt/Urban, Mustansir Dalvi learns/ shares a thing or two about reimagining space in the dark recesses of the netherworld 

The Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Mustansir Dalvi

It takes a special kind of foolhardiness to willingly enter a dark, narrow space when one is mildly claustrophobic. But if you’ve paid for the experience, you do it. Especially if you are an architect. Entering such spaces is to deprive oneself of all sensory wayfinding indicators.

One becomes acutely aware of what one is up against; it can so easily pull one down. It’s like entering a tube. Your personal space bubble is momentarily realigned.

There is no left or right, no up or down, only forward and backward, at a precipitous, seemingly endless tilt. Such has been my experience of putting good sense aside on more than one occasion. Climbing into the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Giza was one such. Sliding down a salt mine in Austria another.

So, naturally, I want to talk about both. On the edge of a vast lake near Salzburg, Austria, is the former mining town of Hallstätt, now a tourist trap. Rising above are the Salzkammergut mountains. Salt (salz) mines run in their innards, a cash cow from neolithic times. Over thousands of years, miners seeking its telltale pink sign created a succession of passages like anthills inside the mountain.

We enter the mineshaft on an even plane, and are given a briefing, and a set of mandatory helmets and overalls, the latter made of thick canvas, with specifically reinforced seats. Looking the part, we are led to two wooden slides that vanish into the darkness below, 64 metres into the bedrock. Climb on, lie down, hands on chest, no wiggling, we are told and, push off !

Over time, miners had realised that the most efficient vehicle to swiftly reach the deepest interstices of the mines is—bodyweight. We experience what psychologists call the ‘perceptual narrowing’ of attention when under stress.

The pulse begins to race, the throat constricts, the mouth goes dry. Our focus narrows, as gravity claims our full attention. Gravity, and the seat of our pants, accomplishes this acceleration at the rate of 9.81 metres per second per second.

That may seem fast, but the descent is long enough for us to contemplate all of the following: (a) Is it too late to change our minds? (b) Can we get our money back? (c) What is the meaning of life? And then, miraculously, without external brakes, the slide smoothly turns a quarter-circle, and we decelerate to such a natural stop we wonder: Is it really over? It is.

The lower end of the slide is an incredible example of product design, developed iteratively over millennia to bring any bodyweight to a stop without a jerk. As our eyes adjust to the dark space, we can only look back in admiration. Soon other bodies occupy the space beside us. We move in volumes excavated by ancient hands.

How valuable has salt been to life, as a preservative, tastemaker, item of trade and imperial asset. Even as the realisation sinks in that we have dropped nearly 7 storeys into this netherworld, relief is at hand. We are extracted by that wonder of the industrial age—rail tracks. An engine attached to a few open bogies takes us back to the surface.

Robert Macfarlane, in his lyrical study of the world beneath our feet, Underland: A Deep Time Journey reminds us that ‘to understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark… To perceive matter that casts no shadow, you must search not for its presence but for its consequence.’

Lake Hallstätt in Salzkammergut, Austria.
Lake Hallstätt in Salzkammergut, Austria.

We emerge to a bright blue sky over the ice-topped mountains and azure waters of the Hallstätter See below us. We have never felt so alive. While falling down is inevitable, climbing up is an act of will. The first encounter with the Great Pyramid of Khufu on the Giza plateau is unnerving, even from the outside.

Each stone in this well-stacked pile is taller than an average Indian. Up close, one can’t really see the top. Perspective curves the edges of the vast base both ways as we look to our left and to our right. Thrill-seekers clamber over the well-dressed blocks even as they are chased off by guards. A line of tourists forms along makeshift steps to the entrance 12 metres above us, waiting patiently for their turn to enter the Pharaonic darkness.

The Great Pyramid is entered through a hole roughly gouged out in the 9th century under orders from the then Caliph, Al-Ma’moun. The real entrance is 17 metres above ground but, for the last fourand- a-half thousand years, too secure to allow ingress. The lure of treasures that began from the time the Egyptians interred their dead continues to this day, even if present treasure-hunters are called archaeologists.

Ma’moun’s shaft serendipitiously hit the inner passage to the King’s Chamber, and from then on, this is the official way in. After a longish career teaching the design of the pyramid to students of architecture and drawing cross-sections on blackboards, one is acutely aware of how narrow and long its rising passages are.

Our ultimate goal is to enter the King’s Chamber, that masterpiece of interior space preserved by a rising system of angular stone blocks (called relieving chambers) so well positioned they transfer the enormous weight of the pyramid above to its sides and thence to the ground. All well and good in theory. In practice, you feel the pain.

To enter, you first have to bend, then scrunch, then assume the stance of a tomb-raider. At the end of Ma’moun’s passage—a short walk—a tube rises. This is the ascending passage, angled upwards at 26 degrees, 46 metres in length, only around a metre wide. We gulp. This is the salt mine in reverse, only worse. Before we can back out, we meet an older couple returning from their travails, faces flushed and happy.

“You can do it!” they tell us. So now we have to. The ascending passage is oneway only—we can just about distinguish anxious heads at the top waiting for us to go up so they can make their way down. Each step is steep. Climbing up, bent over at nearly right angles, our aching, ageing bones sing sad Hindi songs.

When we reach the top, everyone is relieved. At this point, we experience what architects love to call a ‘space explosion’. We find ourselves in the famed Grand Gallery, a tall thin space, wider than the ascending passage and beautifully lit. The Gallery rises to a height of 8.6 metres—that’s nearly three conventional storeys.

Inside the Grand Gallery of the Pyramid of Khufu.
Inside the Grand Gallery of the Pyramid of Khufu.

Blocks of stone jut out as each course rises, resulting in a triangular shape. A completely interior space, designed to deflect the weight of the tonnage of stone above it so we don’t get crushed. It follows the same angle as the passage and we have to climb up a further 21 metres. Steep, but a cakewalk as this time we can walk upright.

At the top of the Gallery is the way to the Kings Chamber, blocked for all eternity by a stone plug. Tomb-robbers of unknown provenance have already tunnelled through this vast stone and we take the ‘robber’s entrance’ to the King’s Chamber, almost crawling on all fours.

The chamber itself is empty, except for a broken stone sarcophagus or coffin. Neither Pharoah nor treasure were ever found. We are rewarded instead by a marvel of space-making—a perfectly rectangular chamber with smooth walls, polished to a sheen. The stones are so well fitted you can barely identify the joints, every angle just right.

This is negative space, the opposite of the pyramid itself, the size of a compact Mumbai 1BHK flat, sitting virtually in the middle of that solid volume of stone. It is an architect’s dream, and we rejoice in having made it here, but before we can get too cocky, we are shunted out and have to do the whole long march in reverse.

Climbing down is a hairier experience than climbing up, but that is a small price to pay.

(Mustansir Dalvi teaches architecture at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai)

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